The Magic Beans – Page 87



Jack wakes slowly, his consciousness swimming upward like a man weighted with chains.

Groaning, he opens his eyes and rolls over, testing himself carefully for injury. He finds his body whole and unhurt, aside from his pounding head and eyes that smart from the harsh light of torches blazing overhead. He drags himself carefully to his feet.

He is in a long, narrow hall with walls of steel blocks. Great columns support the ceiling overhead, and beyond the circle of torchlight surrounding him, he can make out dim halls and galleries stretching away in either direction. The architecture is strange, almost superhuman, not like any castle built by men. His intuition tells him he is underground – perhaps (and even he cannot suppress a shudder at the thought) in the Underworld, that vast labyrinth of rooms, tunnels, and caverns that riddles the flesh of Malkat like a cancer.

The walls of this strange passage are very low; looking up he can see that the chamber is bisected by another hallway at right angles and nearer to the grim ceiling. Even as he examines the possibility of leaping to this second level, two sets of heavy tread ring against the steel blocks, and two sets of glowing red eyes peer at him from above. Jack recoils in surprise – they are massive constructs, machine-men with eight spider-like arms terminating in huge tearing claws. He has encountered such creatures before, in the lair of a relict Old One. The more primitive of the two, with a hide of rough-hewn iron plates, is an Iron Claw; the other, with armor-skin impregnated with the eerie crystal-steel alloy of the Old Ones, is a Death Claw. Both are prodigious dangers; this will be a hard fight.

Jack reaches for his sword – and groans in dismay. The Rune Sword, the Dancing Dagger of Danzibar – all his weapons are gone. He feels in the Pouch of Ghrul at his belt, and receives another nasty shock. All his potions and powerups, as well as any extra weapons he carried, are all gone, even the Frost Potion he so laboriously collected in the Labyrinth of Malkat – except a single PowaShroom, overlooked in the search. Otherwise there is nothing of any combat value left, but his hand closes on another artifact that his captors overlooked, which may be of use: the Giant’s Knucklebones, given him by Red Tom at their parting outside the Labyrinth. He remembers Tom’s words: “As long as you hold them in your hand, anything you say will be believed. Use with caution.”

They are better than nothing. Hoping his gesture has gone unnoticed, he conceals the Knucklebones and PowaShroom in his hand. Overhead, the Death Claw gestures for him to leap to the upper level. Jack dissembles, feigning that he cannot manage the jump, though the Seven League Boots still adorn his feet. The construct issues a small, human-like shrug, apparently accepting the lie. Two pairs of its huge claws suddenly shoot forth, attached to the construct’s forearms with stout chains. They wrap around Jack and the warrior is yanked off his feet, drawn upward by the claws like a fish dragged from the sea by a net. The machine-man deposits him none too gently on the floor beside him. With a prodigious leap, the Iron Claw joins them and, escorted by two huge combat constructs, Jack is led deeper into the dim and musty bowels of this subterranean fortress – toward what end, he cannot guess.

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